“Produce is our company’s calling card,” Scott Schuette, the newly appointed Vice President of Produce for Chicago-based Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, tells me. “As goes the produce department, goes the entire company.”
Hearing Scott say these words, you can tell that this isn’t a burden, but a challenge. Having only celebrated Fresh Thyme’s third birthday earlier this year, and with Scott joining just two years ago, it’s clear that bringing this value-priced, natural and organic concept to the Midwest is a labor of love for the produce authority with over 30 years of experience under his belt.
“It is hard to believe that two years have already gone by since I started with Fresh Thyme Farmers Market,” Scott reflects on what has been a rapid period of growth for both the company and for himself professionally. “In June, I was promoted to a position where I will be overseeing everything produce and floral from both the retail and the wholesale perspective. But, my accomplishment is minor compared to what we as a company have accomplished during these last two years.”
Since Scott has joined the team, Fresh Thyme’s growth has skyrocketed. From just 18 locations in 2015, the company has now shot to upwards of 64 stores—and that’s not counting the ones slated for later in 2017. And with an exceedingly ambitious goal of hitting the 150-store-mark by the year 2020, for Fresh Thyme, like many other retailers, the produce department will continue to be a key part of that growth.
“Our point of differentiation is pretty simple—a great fresh produce department that everyone can have access to,” Scott says. “We sell healthy food and healthy values to customers that want more affordable alternatives. We also offer the consumer a smaller, more convenient layout to navigate while shopping. Since produce is the foundation of our company, we have to lead with strong retails, high volume movement, and almost 30 percent of the stores’ daily sales!”
As many of us in the industry have had to learn the hard way, great, fresh produce at an affordable price is no easy feat. Since Scott has joined Fresh Thyme, the company has switched from getting 100 percent of its produce through third party distributors, to being 100 percent fully self-distributed today. This achievement came in large part due to the building of its own 320,000-square-foot produce, floral, and grocery distribution center in nearby Bolingbrook, Illinois.
“This year, our own distribution center has jumped into ‘local grown’ products with both feet,” Scott tells me, adding that this produce initiative will be a key factor into Fresh Thyme’s overall growth strategy. “All core locally grown categories are on our daily radar, with weekly promotions revolving around seasonal favorites. Over the course of the season, we plan to shift from being ‘locally grown’ and ‘locally relevant,’ to being hyper-local in each of the regions that we represent, and as we continue to evolve, we expect our local grown item count to more than double during the coming season.”
But, along with keying into this heavily localized and self-distributed model, the company has also been bolstering its team of produce experts, Scott in tow. Scott says his passion for produce comes from growing up in rural Arizona, where farming and agriculture were a way of life.
“Our point of differentiation is pretty simple—a great fresh produce department that everyone can have access to.”
- Scott Schuette
“Having hobby gardens, citrus trees, and even a collection of hard to find exotic fruit trees while growing up made the business easy to fall in love with, and starting my retail produce career at the age of sixteen continued to strengthen my passion for the category, and it has never stopped growing,” Scott says.
With a background rich in retail experience, starting as a carry-out nearly 33 years ago, Scott chose to forgo a career using his visual communications degree and continue on with the career he used to fund his collegial endeavors instead—the fun and fast-paced retail industry, and, specifically, produce.
“What has really ignited my passion for this business is my overall love for the product, the people that I work with, and the challenge that it presents me with each and every day of the week. And now, working with Fresh Thyme, I finally have put all three together; great product, unbelievable colleagues, and the daily challenge of going from zero to sixty stores in three short years,” Scott tells me about what drew him into this career path. “Now, in this role, local grown products in the Midwest have rekindled my passion for the product. It is great to see how much people love to eat locally grown and how proud it makes them feel.”
Prior to coming onto Fresh Thyme, Scott spent over 30 years under produce positions with Bashas’ Family of Stores, Sunflower Farmers Market, and its successor, Sprouts Farmers Market. That’s when Chris Sherrell called.
Chris joined Sunflower Farmers Markets in 2001, became its COO in 2005, and eventually became its CEO just a year before it was sold to Sprouts Markets in 2012. When Sprouts asked Chris if he’d continue on with the company, he quickly turned down the opportunity with bigger plans in mind—starting Fresh Thyme and bringing the farmer’s market format to middle America.
“Having a career mentor, or two, or three, has always been part of my career developmental strategy. Using mentors to guide me through the industry is honestly the only way that could have developed any of the skillset that I currently have today, and since our days at Sunflower Farmers Markets, Chris has been a longtime mentor to me,” Scott says. “When he called and presented me with the opportunity to be part of such an exciting, expanding format and the ability to grow with this aggressive business, I couldn’t pass it up. I can only hope that someday, I am able to return the favor to any up-and-coming members of my team that share the same desire.”
Scott joined Chris’ team as Director of Retail Produce, but even after being promoted to Vice President of Produce just two years later, Scott says his work is still only just beginning.
“As I look to the future and what I plan to do under my new role, my key focus will be keeping sight of our future growth plans, ensuring their success, and making Fresh Thyme’s retail and wholesale divisions work together in perfect harmony,” Scott explains. “My ongoing focus will be training and developing new members that join this fast-paced team. Not too long ago, retail produce was actually considered a ‘trade’, but now it seems to be more of a utility position, with less focus on the art and skillset aspects that are so important to a successful produce department. I’d like to bring some of those important traits back to the retail part of our business.”
"It is great to see how much people love to eat locally grown and how proud it makes them feel.”
- Scott Schuette
This zero-to-sixty mentality will not be lost as the company hits its stride with around 70 stores by the end of the year. A goal of 150 stores in the Midwest by 2020 puts the chain on track to build 40 stores a year—certainly no easy task for any company, let alone one that has only existed since 2014.
“No one ever said that opening more than 150 stores in just five or six years was going to be easy,” Scott says. “But working with people that you know and trust makes major company goals like this possible. Many years ago, my childhood soccer coach used to scream out, ‘there ain’t no ‘I’ in Team, so pass the ball.’ I now, more than ever, understand the importance of passing the ball and working with my team to reach our one common goal. Together, the growing leadership team of Fresh Thyme has made history, while forming some lifelong friendships along the way. This is an adventure that I will have the privilege of telling my grandkids about when looking back twenty years from now. A chance like I have had with Fresh Thyme has been on my radar since my early career, and I will savor the moment.”
In an industry where everyone is looking for a piece of the pie, Fresh Thyme has found its slice in America’s heartland. With the region further tuning into a deeper understanding of food and eating healthier, that number, 150 stores, becomes less like a foreboding landmark to strive for, and more a promise of what is about to come.